Marijuana dispensaries planned to give thousands to Connecticut charities. Some never got a dime.
A review by Connecticut Public's Accountability Project found scant evidence that cannabis businesses satisfied some prior commitments for community support.
Inside an old factory in Waterbury, a creaky freight elevator brings visitors to the Make a Home Foundation.
At its headquarters, there are dining room sets, couches, coffee tables, pieces of framed artwork – everything you need to feel at home.
Anita Pettengill founded the charity with her husband. Pettengill said she was watching “Oprah” one day and saw the story of a female veteran who was sleeping in her car.
Pettengill saw a way to transform her hobby of collecting used furniture into a charitable endeavor. Today, Make a Home provides furnishings to people in need, including veterans and families fleeing domestic violence.
“Security is probably the most important thing to keep people out of homelessness,” Pettengill said. “A pillow under their head, mattress, dishes. They can invite their family to come over.”
The foundation operates with a modest budget. Pettengill was therefore surprised to learn that a potential donor was right down the road.
Caring Nature won a competitive license from the state in 2016 to sell medical cannabis. As part of its pitch, the dispensary indicated in its license application that it would support several local charities, including Make a Home.
But as of this summer, the foundation hadn’t received a dime. Pettengill didn’t know her charity was named a recipient.
“I was surprised,” she said, “and I was disappointed.”
Nearly all of the 18 medical marijuana dispensaries operating in Connecticut made similar plans during the licensing process to give back to the community.
But there’s scant evidence that many of those commitments were satisfied.
Connecticut Public contacted more than 50 organizations named as potential beneficiaries, from food banks and hospital foundations to local police and fire departments.
Thirty-five indicated they have no record of getting money or other contributions. Like Pettengill, many administrators didn’t know the dispensaries named them as intended recipients.
In nine instances, organizations did receive donations or other assistance. Several other groups didn’t respond or wouldn’t comment because they keep donor information private.
A dispensary in Bristol listed AIDS Connecticut as one program it intended to support. That group has no record of receiving its contributions, according to John Merz, CEO of Advancing Connecticut Together, which operates AIDS Connecticut and other social services.
“If they used it as a way to get their license but never actually followed through on their promise with the folks who licensed them, then I would say somebody should have an issue with that,” Merz said.
Plans to give back
The state awarded a limited number of medical marijuana dispensary licenses in three separate rounds between 2013 and 2018.
As part of their review, state officials asked dispensary owners how they would give back if awarded a potentially lucrative license. Community benefits plans contributed to each applicant’s score, becoming one of several components for which the state awarded bonus points.
Connecticut Public obtained the licensing records through a request made under the state Freedom of Information Act and reviewed each applicant’s stated goals for charitable giving.
Those records show that some dispensaries provided only broad plans, identifying an initiative or type of organization they intended to support. Few provided a timeline or listed a dollar amount they would give.
But many named specific organizations they planned to help, either with money or other support, such as participation with educational programs or public awareness campaigns.
Tracking donations can be tricky, as many charities don’t divulge their donors. Contributions can also appear under an individual’s name, making it challenging for any organization to completely rule out receiving money — particularly smaller sums.
However, those who run local organizations said they know where most contributions originate.
In Newington, the business entity that won a competitive license three years ago to open a medical marijuana dispensary in the town planned to give $5,000 to local civil servants, such as police and firefighters.
Fire Chief Jeffrey Trommer said every donation to the department comes through his office, and none came from the dispensary.
“This is the first time I’m even hearing that they were going to make donations toward the civil servants,” Trommer said.
Consolidation in the cannabis industry
So what happened? How did intended donations fall by the wayside?
Part of the story is that most dispensaries have changed hands since winning their licenses from the state.
In the case of that dispensary in Newington, the original owners sold their license to another entity, Fine Fettle, on the eve of their grand opening.
The Healing Corner, the dispensary in Bristol, was similarly acquired in 2019 by a major player in the industry, Trulieve, for $19.9 million, according to a regulatory filing.
We reached out to the original owner of The Healing Corner but didn’t get any response. A spokesman for Trulieve did not respond to questions but said in an email that the company contributes to numerous charities.
“We are proud of the Trulieve team’s community efforts made to date, and those we will continue to make in Connecticut where our local team members live and work,” the spokesman said.
Acreage Holdings, another big name in the industry, acquired three dispensaries across the state, paying between $10 million and $15 million for each, according to documents it filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
One of those locations, Prime Wellness of Connecticut in South Windsor, said it would form its own charitable organization and allocate at least 3% of its annual proceeds to fund its work.
Among those intended to benefit were Komen Connecticut, the Connecticut Food Bank, Open Hearth, Liberation Programs and the Mandell MS Center.
Representatives from each of those organizations said they were unable to find any record of receiving donations from Prime Wellness.
Acreage Holdings did not respond to our questions but said in a written statement that Prime Wellness supports a range of community organizations, including by holding food and clothing drives, raising funds for Connecticut Epilepsy Advocates, collecting donations for Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital and donating to organizations that promote LGBTQ+ equality.
The company’s two other dispensaries in Montville and Danbury “have proudly initiated endeavors and will continue to maintain and build on these actions,” a spokeswoman wrote.
Angela D’Amico ran the Danbury dispensary before Acreage took over. She originally hoped to open the business in Stratford but instead found a suitable location in Bethel, where the dispensary operated for a number of years before moving to its current location.
In their license application, D'Amico and a former business partner listed the library and police and fire departments in Stratford as potential beneficiaries.
D’Amico said she chose instead to provide free or discounted marijuana to needy patients.
“Rather than donating to the library, I thought that the need was better suited to help the patients be able to get their medicine,” D’Amico said.
Curaleaf, another large multistate operator, now owns four Connecticut dispensaries. It didn’t respond to numerous interview requests. Nor did the owners of Bluepoint Wellness, which operates two dispensaries.
At Affinity Health and Wellness in New Haven, President Ray Pantalena said the dispensary changed its giving plans after it opened in 2019 because the organizations it listed in its application didn’t get back to him. Pantalena said the dispensary donates today to an opioid awareness group, and another for health care professionals.
There was also a clerical mistake on the dispensary’s license application, Pantalena said. It listed the Boys and Girls Club of New Haven as a beneficiary, but it had intended to list Boys and Girls Village, a nonprofit in Milford that serves at-risk children.
That group confirmed it received at least one donation of $1,000 from the dispensary. The donation came in late September, around the same time Connecticut Public started posing questions to the dispensary regarding its philanthropic activities.
'What's the right level of enforcement?'
Fine Fettle runs three Connecticut dispensaries. It opened the first in Willimantic and later acquired two others, which today operate in Newington and Stamford.
COO Ben Zachs said the company went above and beyond its original plans for charitable giving, donating thousands to support medical research and organizations that weren’t part of its original benefits plan.
Its charitable initiatives include holding food, clothing, and toy drives, giving employees paid time to volunteer, and providing support for cancer research. It also donates to The Trevor Project, The Last Prisoner Project, and The Root Center, a nonprofit addiction services center.
In addition, Fine Fettle supports Three Rivers Community College, and helped create the content for the state community college system's cannabis workforce development program.
The company also required one dispensary it purchased to pay the town of Mansfield money it committed to provide.
“I think that ultimately the reality of the world is plans sometimes change,” Zachs said.
The Department of Consumer Protection regulates medical marijuana companies. An average of three to four DCP employees oversaw the state’s medical marijuana program after its inception in 2012.
The industry saw both significant growth and consolidation during its early years. Nearly 50,000 patients in Connecticut are currently eligible to buy medical cannabis for treatment of a qualifying debilitating medical condition, such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.
Medical marijuana dispensaries in the state generate an estimated $170 million to $210 million in sales, according to the MJBiz Factbook, an annual report produced by MJBizDaily, an online publication that covers the industry.
DCP declined an interview request for this story. A spokeswoman said the department believes dispensaries made efforts to be good neighbors in their communities by donations and other means. All 18 are fully compliant with their license requirements, she said.
“There was an understanding then, as there is now, that plans may change,” the spokeswoman wrote, “particularly as businesses got up and running and a more realistic view of what might be possible began to take shape.”
DCP is staffing up to handle the launch of adult-use sales, slated for early January 2023. The state is filling 62 positions created to handle the recreational program.
Outside Connecticut, some states have established independent commissions to oversee cannabis. DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, said his group recommends that model.
As Connecticut prepares to roll out recreational marijuana sales, questions remain about whether the state has established enough oversight, Ward said.
“I think Connecticut is going to constantly have to do an assessment of what’s the right level of enforcement to be able to regulate this industry,” he said. “But it’s certainly a concern.”
Back in Waterbury, Connecticut Public contacted one of the original owners of Caring Nature to ask about its charitable giving. One representative said he was confident the dispensary satisfied each of its commitments but declined to answer additional questions.
Another nonprofit, St. Vincent DePaul Mission of Waterbury, confirmed it did receive money from the business.
Pettengill said that after we reached out, the company that now owns the dispensary donated $1,500 to the Make a Home Foundation. She says it will be money well spent.
“We deserve it,” she said. “This community and the people that we service are in need.”
If you have a story that needs to be investigated, email The Accountability Project at email@example.com.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated after initial publication to reflect Fine Fettle's charitable initiatives. A representative from Fine Fettle declined a recorded interview.
After initial publication of this story, Curaleaf provided the following statement:
Curaleaf acquired dispensaries in Connecticut which made certain commitments in the original application process that were specific to their relationships and capabilities at that time. Since entering the Connecticut market, we have moved forward with Curaleaf's national "Rooted in Good" corporate social responsibility strategy, which makes national programs available to Connecticut patients via patient education and other virtual events through our partners, including Marijuana Matters, onePULSE Foundation, Acute on Chronic and Women Grow. Additionally, through our locally-targeted "Feed the Block" program, we proudly support local programs and community partners in Connecticut, such as Hands on Hartford and the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative. Plans to further deploy Curaleaf's best-in-class Rooted in Good program locally in Connecticut are underway, with goals of ensuring that the company's Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Social Equity and Sustainability efforts impact patients and customers in the state.
Curaleaf is committed to meeting and exceeding all regulations and requirements set forth by Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection (DCP), and to being a good corporate citizen in Connecticut and all the communities we serve. We look forward to a continued, collaborative working relationship with the DCP as new requirements and regulations evolve and as we leverage our national experience to prepare for adult use in Connecticut.